By the Rev. Ken McClure
When we think of Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, under the influence of the crafty equivocations of the serpent (Gen. 3), we tend to view this as the moment of the first sin; but is it?
The primeval couple allow themselves to be duped into disobedience, and awaken from their innocence after their fruit bender with a shame hangover, and an urgent need to mask their exposure. They cannot help but hide from their nakedness and guilt, particularly when they first encounter God in the light of their new knowledge.
The knowledge is important here, because sin is only possible through choice, and choice is dependent upon knowledge. The choice that Adam and Eve make to eat the fruit in disobedience of God is unlike any subsequent disobedience committed in the human experience, because it is done without the ability to comprehend the morality of the action. They have not eaten the fruit that gives the knowledge of right and wrong when they make the wrong choice. It is only after they have done it that they understand they shouldn't have.
No other sin can be said to bear this unique signature: even when ignorance is at the root of a sin, it must be said to be committed with an elementary concept of right and wrong that the primeval couple did not possess ... until they did.
With this in mind, we need to consider if this episode marks the first sin, or the instance that allows sin to enter the world?
Once they are able to discern good from evil, the actions of Adam and Eve and the actions of all that come after them are bound to elementary principles of right and wrong, and so the choice to do wrong is thereafter made with intention. If we consider this moment an entry point for sin, then the first sin, the sin that bears resemblance to every other sin that follows, is the slaying of Abel by Cain (Gen. 4). This is an act committed with the full knowledge that it is wrong: the first instance when the newly-gained human ability to discern between that which is good and evil is tested, and fails.
If we consider the function of the later Law as binding sin, and further consider Jesus' reduction of the Law as being ‘love God, and love neighbor as self,’ than asking how these commandments could serve as correctives for these instances can help us to discern what should be considered sin.
While Adam and Eve fail to obey God, there is not a moment when their love of God seems to be in question. Without the ability to know what they are doing is wrong, their disobedience cannot be said to be connected to their affinity. The love for God is at the heart of the Cain and Abel tragedy, first seen when Cain takes the initiative to make an offering from his fields. However it's a love that becomes corrupted when it is not reciprocated to the degree that satisfies Cain's need of affirmation, and it drives him to jealously murder his brother. He is not willing to love God on any terms other than his own, and when those are inadequate, he lashes out.
Cain is the first human to fail to love God with his whole heart, and to love his neighbor as himself. Furthermore, Cain receives a unique mark to demonstrate that his crimes are subject to God's judgement, not the judgement of humanity (Gen. 4:15); this is what points to this being the first appearance of Sin. God claims jurisdiction over the judgement of the act, and while subsequent acts that resemble Cain's crimes will fall under human jurisdictions of judgement, the root of Cain's crime, sin, will always fall to God alone to judge.
These two stories, like the two creations (The mystery of the two Creation stories: separating the HOW from the WHY), need to be read together to be fully understood. Not as a timeline of events, but as a model of understanding the human condition. Chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis demonstrate that knowledge is transformative, but mired in consequence; and if it is exercised without a love of God, and a love of neighbor, it allows sin to blossom and consume.